Wednesday, April 11, 2012


Alicia and I have been talking between ourselves about spark, that know-it-when-you-see-it factor that makes a book worth reading. Actually, it would be more accurate to say we've been discussing lack of spark, and how prevalent it seems to be these days. This conversation wasn't prompted by any specific book or manuscript, but rather, by an aggregate of experiences.

For me, it started two months ago when I got my kindle fire and started browsing the kindle store. I was excited about my new toy, and eager to load it up with fresh titles. I went straight to the fiction lists and started browsing sample chapters. But one after another, every sample chapter I read failed to capture my interest as a reader.

I thought maybe it was a genre issue -- I read across genres, and sometimes I'm just not in the mood for one or another kind of book. So I started browsing other lists. Mystery, scifi, fantasy, genfic, romance, litfic -- no matter where I roamed, I failed to find anything that screamed, "Read me now!" I did download a few titles, but none of them felt so compelling that I had to keep reading right then and there. Most of them felt vaguely familiar, competent but not entirely fresh.

This went on for weeks. Of the hundreds of books I sampled, I've probably downloaded no more than twenty. I really thought it was just me, but then a friend of mine, Tracey Devlyn, handed me an ARC of her first book (A Lady's Revenge, out last week). I've read this book several times in the past few years, so the characters and plot were already familiar. Yet when I started reading the first page again, I was just as hooked as I had been the first time I read it. I gave it to my mom (anything but an avid reader), and she stayed up until three in the morning reading it. She described the first chapter as "almost too scary." That book has spark, and it reminded me of what all those other hundreds of titles had been lacking.

What makes for spark? This gets to what Alicia and I have been discussing. We've been trying to decide whether it's possible to teach spark. I think (and I suspect Alicia agrees) that spark comes naturally to some writers, and others have to fight to find it. And maybe you can find it, but maybe you can't. It might be innate. I don't know -- I'm sort of undecided on that, because I think we can identify aspects of spark and figure out how to incorporate those.

So what are those aspects of spark? Just brainstorming a list here, spark is --
  • Bold
  • But not silly or contrived
  • Lots of sentence-level tension
  • Strong, clear character emotions
  • Those emotions make sense and are in proportion to the events
  • Obvious external problems to solve
  • Unambiguous world-building, in the sense that setting details are relevant
  • Occasional surprises in the way details are presented
  • Active text without a lot of "telling"
What would you add to this list? What makes spark?



Alicia said...

I like that-- sentence-level tension.

Gin said...

The big-picture elements affect spark, too, beyond the mostly sentence-level issues you mention. Pacing, and knowing what should be shown (and not) and where the story should start and the right details to include (and exclude).

I have seen a lot of competent writing that starts in the wrong place and lacks conflict, so even though the individual sentences are fine, there's no reason to keep reading.

Annette said...

Ooh, great post. I love it when you prompt me to think about things in a new way. For me, a big component of what you are calling 'spark' is characters who are truly engaging. Yes, the emotions should be strong and clear and make sense and be in proportion, but that doesn't automatically mean that a reader will engage/sympathize/be drawn in. The characters need to make me care about them almost as if they are real people.

Susan Helene Gottfried said...

Spark is sinking into a book in the opening, like you belong there. Which is a lot less technical than you wanted, but...

Oh, and I bet you'd find spark in Trevor's Song; he's that sort of guy. Holler if you want a copy.

Clare K. R. Miller said...

I've been noticing the same thing. I download a lot of samples to my Kindle (I'm not very discerning about what I sample, I suppose) and usually read a chunk at a time. I often go through a cycle of wondering whether I'm being too picky because I've discarded several in a row, but then I read one that I absolutely must have. And my list of books I really want to buy keeps growing, so I guess I'm not being unnecessarily selective...

I was thinking about the elements of it as I read and what I came up with was: engaging, active main character (and who I can identify--I have read so many samples that have a prologue about some throwaway character, or just start out in everybody's head and I don't know who to care about), and a clear conflict.

However, I think that what qualifies as spark is different to different readers. I know I've discarded samples of books that friends of mine have loved.

Jane George said...

I'm so glad you posted this. I thought that because I'm a writer I had gotten reader's ennui.

Spark to me is when I want to BE in that character's world. And then I'm sucked in.

It might be easier to identify why a piece of writing doesn't have spark. Perhaps so many writers (and publishers) are chasing a success formula that the 'I've read something like this' cues are in full-force, and the story blends and bores?

Jennifer Tanner said...

Hola Teresa!

A good first page either makes me frown because I'm thinking, "Oh,my God..." and I want to read further, or it makes me smile. It's a good thing when I crack open a book and it keeps me on the treadmill for an hour.

Edittorrent said...

To me I think it's precise word choice. I know, boring.

Arloa Hart said...

I'd say spark also comes from characters who are real individuals -- they're not the cookie-cutter characters you expect in a certain genre, they've got something that makes the reader pay attention, because this isn't "the usual." Or if they are the usual, they're so vivid you have to keep going.

That said, I'm always amazed how, in any field, you can tell when someone has "it" and when someone is really, really good but without "it." That has, historically, what kept me watching all those singing shows on TV, although I've burned out on all of them now.

Wes said...

GREAT topic!!

I don't have anything analytical to add. But for me I have to have a reason to care in the first couple of pages. That could be due to setting, situation, characters, something I'm curous about, etc.

I learned very early that some people know how to tell a story and some don't. During the summers of my college years I worked on Maniac Island (Mackinac Island, MI [prnounced Mackinaw]). OMG, what a bunch of characters I worked with. We were constantly BS'ing and telling stories. Some guys could hook you from the first sentence, and others would drone on and bore us to death. I'm still not sure of why they were different. Humor, drama, economy of words, and a wide range of possible outcomes were probably a few. It's like learning how to cuss. Some people have it; others don't. What makes the difference?